First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Advent 1

William Loader

Advent 1: 1 December  Romans 13:11-14

Paul assumes the Romans share with him the view that history is reaching its climax and presumably this includes the return of Christ, the resurrection and the day of judgement. It didn't happen that way and here we are two thousand years later! Yet Paul's exhortation stands in its own right whether we expect the approaching end or not. It employs the imagery of night and day, partly to speak of the approaching day of the Lord, but primarily to contrast light and day as ways of being and behaviour.

The context of Paul's comments in these closing sections of Romans is concern with the way the Romans relate to one another. In particular he emphasises love as the basis for such relationships and has just alluded to the fact that where such love exists all that matters in the Law is fulfilled (13:8-10). In chapter 14 he will go on to apply this to what it means to live in a community where people have differing values, particularly in the way they apply scripture, in this case in relation to foods. Into this context he then introduces his comments about the approaching day.

Paul is employing familiar images. Both in early Christianity and beyond the image of waking up from sleep or coming from death to life or from darkness to light and of changing one's clothes was well known and used. It expressed major change, re-orientation, repentance, but with a strong sense that one is turning to something which is far better than what is left behind. Paul can expect the Romans to warm to his exhortation. It sounds familiar and expresses values they share. The same thing happens when Paul launches his attack on the unbelieving world in Romans 1. It is designed to elicit approval. This is partly a ploy on Paul's part to soften people up, as it were, for the real message. That real message is about taking love seriously.

The urgings in 13:13 not to engage in immorality of various kinds also recalls Romans 1. Again Paul can expect approval because Christians and Jews targeted the evils of drunkenness and sexual immorality in the pagan world. Notice that the list in 13:13 ends with jealousy and quarrelsome behaviour. That is much closer to home and underlies what Paul will go on to say. Paul is already beginning to switch the attention from a general attack on evil, for which he can expect consent, to a particular evil which he will then go on to address in the following chapters. The effect is then to urge the Romans to take up what was a common exhortation, often linked with baptism and conversion, and turn it back in a particular way on the Romans so that they would begin to see their own situation in a new way.

Paul shared the common concerns about morality, but he always went further than that. Paul was not interested in preserving a negative kind of purity in which people did nothing wrong - and did nothing much that was useful either. His understanding of living flowed not from commandments or rules (notice they are incidental even in 13:8-10), but from the love which he saw expressed in Christ. His use of the image of weaponry and armour (13:12) was not a kind of defensive protection. Nor, of course, did he use that particular metaphor aggressively. But he does see life in the spirit as something active and expressive of compassion. He does see it as affecting the way people live together. It is focussed on relationships and caring and not just on a kind of passive goodness or the absence of the bad.

Our passage reaches its climax in 13:14. Again we find baptismal language. 13:12 had already used the image of changing one's dress. Here we are to be clothed with Christ. This belongs within Paul's notion that we are the body of Christ. It is Christ's being of love which needs to encompass us and from which will flow loving behaviour. Of course the Romans will want to agree that they should not be giving reign to selfish human lusts. Probably some, first hearing this, would think especially of sexual immorality, because it was such a common theme. That will be half Paul's intent. But the other half is that he will go on to expose that selfish human desire also has a very respectable way of tearing communities apart when people stop treating each other as people and that this happens in the church. Even if we may not agree with his advice in what follows, about what and what not to eat, and about whether to observe particular days (remember all the stress over "the sabbath"?), we see that Paul's concern is to see compassion working itself out in all that we do and not in bigoted strife. We don't live for ourselves (14:7-8). Love is bigger than all the observances and bigger than all the commandments.

Gospel: Advent 1: 1 December  Matthew 24:36-44

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